Whistleblower priests and seminarians are finally talking to reporters, but suffering major consequences

Back in the days when I was digging around after rumors about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s rumored sexual predations, I’d run into priests and laity who told me about all of the dark secrets that they knew. But they didn’t want to go public because, for the priests, it was a career-ender to spill the church’s dirty secrets.

Most, like Robert Hoatson, a New Jersey priest, were simply pushed out. Only now is he being vindicated.

But some even told me they were afraid of being killed. One former employee for the Archdiocese of Washington said that if she told me everything she knew, she’d end up at the bottom of the Potomac attached to some concrete blocks.

She insisted that she wasn’t joking.

Back in 2004, I wrote in the Washington Times of the fate of whistleblower Father James Haley, who went public with some really nasty goings-on in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. Haley was kicked out of the diocese and to this day lives in ecclesiastical exile. No other bishop would touch him. I wrote about him and another whistleblower, Father Joseph Clark in 2008. Clark, who was forced into retirement, gave me this haunting quote:

"The political reality is that Rome doesn't like to go against its bishops. If there is some question as to the virtue of your bishops, the whole house crumbles. The local 7-Eleven clerk has gotten more protection than I receive. Justice in the church is supposed to supersede that in the civil quarter, but that didn't happen."

So I was glad to see how the Washington Post recently ran this story about whistleblower seminarians and how — despite all the recent headlines about corruption among U.S. bishops — they are often forced out the door.

As the GetReligion team has stressed for several years now, everything begins with this word — seminary.

The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.

Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.

“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”

Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t mention what seminary we’re talking about here. Why not? Spectrum News Buffalo has revealed that the accusations center on Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y.

The Post continues:

As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department. …

“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”

Now the day before the article came out, the Vatican announced it was investigating the Buffalo diocese because of the overwhelming amount of rumors concerning how Bishop Richard Malone has mismanaged the diocese. Why didn’t the Post mention that factoid?

The story goes on to talk about a number of whistleblower priests and seminarians in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.V., who ratted on their former bishop, Michael J. Bransfield. One seminarian, Vincent DeGeorge, told the Post the following:

“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah. “To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic.”

People in the outside world may not be able to comprehend why no one has spoken up. However, the Post story explains how the very theological structure of the church works against it.

In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.

Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.

Which it has, in several cases.

Tellingly, things are changing. The article adds that the newspaper has received more calls from seminarians and clergy with tips about who is abusing who in the past year than in the entire decade before that.

Still, a recent survey of 1,500 seminarians released by the University of Notre Dame at the Religion News Association conference in last month showed that 6% reported that sexual misconduct is a problem in their schools.

This whole topic is fascinating in that seminaries seem to be driving off some of their best men; that is, the ones willing to speak truth to power when it comes to sexual abuse. These guys are drawing the line at obeying a bishop who is corrupt. As someone noted n the GetReligion comments section after an earlier post, Martin Luther railed against the same problem 500 years ago before his split from the Catholic Church.

So, I’m glad that some of these priests and seminarians are finding reporters and talking to them. Ten years ago when I was first made aware of this problem, none of these clerics would go on the record. Now they finally are, even though, sadly, they are getting major blowback.

What’s left to happen is for more reporters, outside of major newsrooms, to dig into the local angles of this global story.

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